What's the Difference between Murder and Manslaughter?
The Dilemma: You have this, uh, friend. Yeah, that's it—a friend. And he's gotten himself into a little bit of a, um, predicament. He just needs some legal advice, that's all.
People You Can Impress: the whole gang down in Cell Block C. Love you guys!
The Quick Trick: Did your "friend" plan the crime ahead of time? If so, it's murder.
Most of the world's legal systems distinguish between cold-blooded killings, crimes of passion, and accidental (but still unlawful) deaths. In America, "murder" applies to deaths involving some period of premeditation. But this is a little problematic, because the period of forethought and planning can comprise years or a fraction of a second. Technically, all purposeful crimes involve some measure of premeditation—i.e., there's always a moment between your brain sending the signal to shoot and your hand squeezing the trigger. So it falls to the jury to decide what constitutes adequate forethought and planning to be called murder. The typical sentence for murder in America is either 25 years in prison or life without the possibility of parole; only about 2.5 percent of murders nationwide result in death sentences.
If it's not quite murder, but was still done on purpose, then it might be "voluntary manslaughter." (Take the classic example of the cuckolded husband who catches his wife in the sack with another man and snaps.) Known as "Man 1" on the 37 varieties of Law & Order, voluntary manslaughter generally results in a sentence between 15 and 20 years in prison. A third category, "involuntary manslaughter," covers situations in which the killing is neither planned nor intentional—for instance, convincing your buddy that riding his bike off a cliff would be totally rad. The most common variety of involuntary manslaughter stems from drunk driving: In 2004, 16,694 Americans were killed in alcohol-related car crashes.
It May Be a Small World . . .
. . . but criminal law still differs widely from nation to nation:
In Japan, the worst sentences are reserved for people who kill their own descendants. In Italy, punishments may be lessened if killers can prove they acted to avenge their honor.
Murder Was the Case That They Gave Me
"187" has become ubiquitous slang for murder thanks to rappers like Snoop Dogg (who was once acquitted of murder). Why? Section 187 of the California Penal Code covers murder—but that's not always the case. In Texas, for instance, murder isn't a 187 but a 19.03, which doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well.
For more What's the Difference columns, be sure to click here.